Essential Zen

Essential Zen

by Kazuaki Tanahashi, Tensho D. Schneider

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Yet the teachings of ancient Chinese masters were recorded by their students, discussed, sometimes chanted, and given out as objects of meditation or koans. And, as Kazuaki Tanahashi points out, "However weird or enigmatic they are, or perhaps because of those very qualities, Zen stories have touched the hearts of people for over a thousand years." In Essential Zen,…  See more details below


Yet the teachings of ancient Chinese masters were recorded by their students, discussed, sometimes chanted, and given out as objects of meditation or koans. And, as Kazuaki Tanahashi points out, "However weird or enigmatic they are, or perhaps because of those very qualities, Zen stories have touched the hearts of people for over a thousand years." In Essential Zen, Tanahashi and Schneider present many of the classic writings regarded as "essential" in the East Asian Zen traditions along with a vibrant assortment of American Zen stories, poems, and teachings that reflect the present flowering of Zen in the West. At turns spare, elegant, witty, deeply serious, and marvelously humorous, these are reflections on everything from practical meditation techniques and the tasks of daily life to death, the environment, and activism. Including a history of Zen and its practices, this is a wonderfully lucid, lively, and comprehensive venture into the enduring, evolving, and essential heart of Zen.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal - Library Journal
Like many Zen texts, this book begins with a mild apology for the irony of creating yet another collection of words for something that claims to exist outside the realm of words. Once this has been said, however, the compilers dig into the subject with great enthusiasm, creating an eclectic collection that draws from the most familiar classic texts to contemporary musings. How often, for instance, would you find Leonard Cohen juxtaposed with Dogen? The arrangement is often inspired, with creative chapter headings that complement the selections and sometimes cast them in a new light. This is the kind of book that you can keep nearby, open at random, and be pleasantly surprised by over and over. The equal time and attention given to the growing body of significant teaching from contemporary masters and practitioners keep the collection fresh; with its firm grounding in the classic texts, it brings Zen alive to the present moment. Highly recommended.-Mark Woodhouse, Elmira Coll., N.Y.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.51(w) x 8.66(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


People ask for the road to Cold Mountain,
but no road reaches Cold Mountain.
Summer sky — still ice won't melt.
The sun comes out but gets obscured by mist.
Imitating me, where does that get you?
My mind isn't like yours.
When your mind is like mine
you can enter here.


Which way
did you come from,
following dream paths at night,
while snow is still deep
in this mountain recess?


It was the year 1953 and I had come to Kyoto to find a Zen master, but with no success as yet. While there, I renewed acquaintance with an American professor of philosophy Id first met while attending Dr. Suzuki's classes at Columbia University. He was a Fulbright exchange scholar and like myself was eager to savor monastery life.

This professor introduced me to the Kyoto Zen academic community, all of whom tried to dissuade us from entering a Zen monastery. "The monasteries are antiquated, the atmosphere cold, the training harsh, and most of the roshis narrow-minded religious zealots," they told us.

But having gotten the name of Zen master Soen Nakagawa from a Japanese acquaintance, we decided, despite their dire warnings, to write and ask if we could stay at his monastery for several weeks. He promptly replied, saying, "Yes, you may come for a week."

On the train to Mishima, where his monastery, Ryutaku-ji, was located, my friend and I composed a series ofphilosophical questions to "test" the roshi with. "If he answers these questions satisfactorily," we agreed, "let us stay the week; if not, let's leave the next day."

Nakagawa Roshi greeted us warmly upon our arrival, offering us the traditional Zen balm-tea. No sooner had we begun drinking than our questioning erupted. "Stop!" he commanded, throwing up a hand. "After you finish your tea and do zazen for a while, you may ask your questions."

Fair enough. "But how do we do zazen?" we asked. "We've never meditated before."

"Meditate any way you wish, only don't talk."

A monk attendant escorted us to the Buddha Hall and provided sitting cushions, then put a finger to his lips admonishing silence.

For what seemed like an eternity, we thrashed about wildly in a vain effort to cope with the pain and still our restless thoughts. To throw up our hands in despair and stand on our feet would be an admission of defeat, and such a display of weakness might suddenly terminate our stay. So we endured with gritted teeth. At last the monk appeared and mercifully ended our ordeal. "The roshi is waiting for you in his room," he announced with a sardonic smile. We limped to his quarters. The hour was late and we were exhausted. Not having eaten all day, we relished the bowl of rice placed in front of each of us as though it were gourmet food. The roshi, watching us and smiling benignly, said, "Now for the questions."

"No questions, roshi! All we want to do is go to bed."

"Very good idea, because we get up at 3 in the morning."

And that ended my first practical lesson in Zen, a lesson I have never forgotten.

Philip Kapleau

He was offered the whole world,
He declined and turned away.

He did not write poetry,
He lived poetry before it existed.
He did not speak of philosophy,
He cleaned up the dung philosophy left behind.

He had no address:
He lived in a ball of dust playing with the universe.

Jung Kwung


Among other creatures this is what I was.
Abilities depend on the realm; realm also depends on
At birth I forgot completely by which path I came.
I don't know, these years, which school of monk I am.


Awakened within a dream,
I fall into my own arms.
What kept you so long?

Lou Hartman

Once seventeen monks from Szechwan were traveling, seeking the Way and trying to find a master. Before seeing master Yangshan, they spent the night at his monastery guest house and they began talking about the famous flag story of the Sixth Ancestor. Each of them admitted that they didn't understand it.

Miaoxin, who was the director of the guest house, overheard them talking, and said to herself, "What a pity! These seventeen blind donkeys are wasting their straw sandals. They haven't seen the buddha-dharma, even in their dreams."

A worker heard her comments and told the monks what she'd said. Instead of resenting her comments, the seventeen monks felt humbled. They straightened their robes, burned incense, bowed, and asked Miaoxin for instruction.

The nun said, "Come closer!"

As the monks came forward, she said, "It's not that the wind moves; it's not that the flag moves; it's not that the mind moves."

When they heard this, all seventeen monks understood. They bowed in gratitude and became her students. Then they went back to Szechwan, without even talking to Yangshan.

Some old papers were recently excavated
from the ruins of an ancient city
in Eastern Turkestan.
The scholars say that they contain
the thought of Bodhidharma,
and they have been busy turning out commentaries,
both in the horizontal writing of the West
and the vertical lines of the Orient.
Who knows exactly the thought of the blue-eyed monk?
Some imitate his zazen and gaze at the wall
until the sun goes down.
Hey — you are all wrong!

Nyogen Senzaki

Rags and again rags,
wearing rags all my life —
I somehow get food at the side of the road;
my hut is left to overgrown mugwort.
Gazing at the moon all night I chant poems.
Getting lost in flowers I don't come home.
Since leaving my nourishing community,
mistakenly I've become this hobbled old horse.


In winter
the seven stars
walk upon a crystal forest

Soen Nakagawa

We're here to get our present model repainted a little...

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